John Powers: Reflections On Cannes 2010

Valerie Plame and Naomi Watts i i

Cannes-do duo: Former CIA agent Valerie Plame (left) walks the red carpet with Naomi Watts, who plays Plame in the drama Fair Game, at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival. Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
Valerie Plame and Naomi Watts

Cannes-do duo: Former CIA agent Valerie Plame (left) walks the red carpet with Naomi Watts, who plays Plame in the drama Fair Game, at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival.

Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

John Powers, Fresh Air's critic-at-large and the movie critic for Vogue, returns from this year's Cannes Film Festival to share his thoughts on the winners, the losers and the films that may make a big box-office splash. He tells host Terry Gross that among other things, this year's festival felt less like an extension of Hollywood than in the past.

Here, an edited overview of Powers' thoughts on the films that won the Palme D'Or and the Grand Prix, as well as some of his favorites from the festival:

•Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul — "One of my very favorite ones at the competition, and probably most critics would love the film a lot. ... [It's about] the movement away from life and death, about the border line between spirit and material life, and what's great about the film is that, when you're watching it, you just don't know what's going to happen. It's lovely to look at. It's funny. It's not boastfully self-conscious. It's not shrieking that it's an art movie. It's sort of a dream of a movie that, when it finished, it got the biggest applause of the festival."

• Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois — "It's a straightforward narrative, but it's on a really interesting and moving theme. The story is about Cistercian monks in the 1990s who are living in Algeria, and they've been living there among the Muslim community providing health care and being the support for that local community. All of a sudden, Islamic terrorists begin to kill Westerners in the area. And the whole film turns on whether or not [the monks] should stay. I guess you'd call that the ticking bomb of the story. But what the film is all about is ... the conflict between the timeless life of the Cistercians — who pray, who chant, who sing, who [produce] their own honey — with the intrusion of history in a country where life is very difficult, where both the terrorists and the government aren't very likable. And gradually, over the course of the movie, you watch the debates on whether or not [the monks] should stay and maybe risk [their lives] to stay with the local community or whether [they] should go. And if you're a Christian, what it means to stay or go. It's a very quietly gripping, beautiful film with a sense of spirit. I kept joking to people that if I were the Vatican, I would probably buy 100 million DVDs of this movie and distribute it, because I think maybe it's the warmest, kindest, most thoughtfully positive depiction of Catholicism that I've seen in the media in years."

• Carlos the Jackal, directed by Olivier Assayas —"[Carlos] is a vivid, exciting, often thrilling portrait of this unlikable guy, Carlos the Jackal. And we follow his career from ... him entering the terrorist business in a big way through the peak of his career ... which was kidnapping all the ministers of OPEC and getting a ransom of $20 million. He becomes a rock-star terrorist, and we then follow him dwindling as the world changes and his terrorist skills have been replaced by a different kind of terrorist skills. So it's this epic sweep story ... and it's vivid, it's fascinating — it's really fun to watch."

• Outside the Law, directed by Rachid Bouchareb — "It's about three Algerian brothers, fighting for independence from France. It takes place in France during the postwar 1950s. ... It's corny and filled with big emotions, and it's kind of a big-hearted movie that you could imagine having Spencer Tracy in, except that ... it's about people who are shooting policemen, blowing up cafes and all the rest."

• Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman — "It's half a good film. For someone who's lived through the last 10 years, there's a kind of golden-oldies quality to seeing Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame coming back again, because that was a different administration. ... What the film does is take you inside the story in a slightly different way, and for the opening half-hour, it's really wonderful, because you actually get to see Valerie Plame doing some spy work. ... Over the course of the film, as Valerie Plame gets outed, the film becomes a comparatively obvious movie about how the government shouldn't lie and how it's wrong to out CIA agents. And most of the complicated issues of this story get lost along the way."

• Poetry, directed by Lee Changdong — "It has a very simple-seeming premise. It's about an old woman in her '60s who's retired and on a pension, and who works as a maid to help support her grandson. Because her life is slightly boring and [she's] looking for something, she decides to take a poetry-writing workshop. And the poetry professor tells her that she needs to see life as it is. And what gradually happens over the next two hours is, she starts to see that. Her grandson gets involved in a scandal; the way that the parents try to deal with the scandal is kind of nasty. And in fact, she reveals herself to have a much deeper, richer and bigger inner life than you would have imagined. ... And along the way, she learns to see things she hadn't seen before. ... It's a movie centered on people writing poetry, or trying to write poetry, that uses the idea of poetry to take you into a way of seeing the world in a richer and more profound way. I think it was probably one of the two or three most admired films [at Cannes]."

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